What is your favorite sleep position? We all have one, whether we sleep like a baby, or struggle to fall asleep. You might like to curl up into a fetal position, or lay on your stomach with one leg hiked up on the side.
If you suffer from sleep apnea, your sleep position may impact your sleep quality more than you realize. The way you lay can affect how well you breathe at night. If you are looking for the best sleep position for sleep apnea keep reading.
The Nightmare of Sleep Apnea
Estimates suggest nearly 1 in every 3 adults suffers from sleep apnea. It is a very common disorder yet according to the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine about 80% of cases are undiagnosed.
This is a condition that momentarily stops the breathing of an individual at different intervals throughout the night. This happens when the airway partially or completely closes (or obstructs) while they sleep. This can cause frequent drops in oxygenation and frequent night awakenings.
Awakenings are usually brief and a reflex response to your body helping you to breathe again. Many people with sleep apnea don’t remember waking up through the night at all.
While they may fall asleep easily and sleep the entirety of the night, oftentimes they wake up feeling like they got no sleep. Daytime sleepiness and brain fog are common symptoms experienced by those dealing with sleep apnea. This is because struggling to breathe properly while you sleep keeps your body from being able to recuperate like it is supposed to.
What Causes Sleep Apnea?
There are many things that might lead to sleep apnea, but the two most common causes are obesity and age. More people are expected to be diagnosed with this sleep disorder as the American population ages and obesity rates rise.
The symptoms of sleep apnea may include:
- Loud snoring broken with hesitations and gasps
- Poor sleep or very light sleep
- Daytime sleepiness
- Waking up with a dry mouth and unrefreshed
- Frequent night awakenings
- Waking up with the sensation of choking
- Waking up with a headache
These are symptoms experienced by those with general sleep apnea. A mild case of this sleep disorder may cause someone to wake up around 15 times per hour. But some can develop severe sleep disruption. These people experience such severe sleep disruption it may worsen other sleep disorders like restless legs syndrome or sleepwalking.
Someone with severe sleep apnea may wake up as much as 500 times during the night. Humans cycle through REM sleep every 70 to 120 minutes. Sleep apnea tends to be worse during periods of REM sleep, with arousals bunching together during these times. This is a very important time during the sleep cycle when we enter deep sleep. So much frequent arousal is obviously a problem that keeps people from properly resting while they sleep.
Sleep Apnea Treatment Options
Sleep apnea can delay the onset of REM sleep and decrease the amount of time you get in restorative deep sleep. But there are some treatment options available. Several of them are effective and commonly used to help people breathe easier during sleep.
Before your doctor can help you find the best treatment options for sleep apnea, you will need a proper diagnosis. This may require an overnight stay at a sleep center. A sleep specialist may run a series of tests to track how you sleep.
The equipment monitors everything including the heart, lungs, brain activity, breathing patterns, arm and leg movements, and blood oxygen levels. Your doctor may order additional tests to pinpoint what kind of condition you may have. You may also be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist to rule out the possibility of any nose or throat blockages.
Once your sleep apnea is properly diagnosed, your doctor can help guide you toward the right type of treatment for you. For people with mild cases of sleep apnea, a few lifestyle changes may be enough to reduce the risk factors and get better sleep.
The most common treatment is continuous positive airway pressure therapy, also known as CPAP. This method requires people to wear a mask during sleep. A machine pumps air into the throat which keeps it from collapsing. The mask needs to fit snugly so it is not very comfortable to sleep in. But if you can get used to it, currently this is the most effective method of treatment for sleep apnea. There are different types of masks, so you may want to try a different one every couple of weeks to see which one is the most comfortable for you. Most people learn to adjust their mask to a place that is comfortable enough for them to fall asleep and get to deep sleep.
There are other airway devices that can be tried as well. Some of these devices automatically adjust the pressure of the air while you are sleeping. They can provide more pressure when you inhale and less when you exhale. If these types of devices don’t seem to be a good fit for you, then you can try oral appliances instead. For example, a mandibular repositioning device can shift the position of the jaw to prevent collapsing of airways during sleep. These types of devices are usually provided by a dentist. They are designed to keep your airways open while you sleep. They may also be able to help reduce snoring. They are usually an option for people with mild cases of sleep apnea.
You may find help with your sleep apnea by treating other medical conditions. Some people have conditions like heart or neuromuscular disorders that make it hard to sleep well. Treating these underlying conditions can sometimes alleviate the symptoms of sleep apnea and reduce the need for other treatments.
If these treatment options don’t offer any positive changes, surgery is also an option. It is usually a last resort option considered after 3 months or more of other treatments. Options include tissue removal. This procedure involves removing tissue from your mouth and throat to stop your throat from vibrating too strongly while sleeping and causing snoring. This surgery is considered less effective than CPAP and is not considered a reliable sleep apnea treatment. Similarly, patients can also try tissue shrinkage. This option uses radiofrequency ablation to shrink the issues in the top of the mouth and back of the throat instead of completely removing them. This option comes with the same effects as tissue removal but with fewer surgical risks.
Patients can also undergo an operation called maxillomandibular advancement. This is a jaw repositioning procedure that moves the jaw forward away from the other facial bones. The extra space added behind the tongue makes obstruction less of a concern.
There are even more options, like implants for patients with moderate to severe cases of sleep apnea. Soft rods can be inserted into soft tissue in the mouth to help blockages stop happening. Stimulators can also be inserted in to the hypoglossal nerve which controls tongue movement. The increased stimulation helps keep the tongue in place while you sleep so the airway stays free from obstruction.
These treatment options don’t work for everyone, and some people might want to try other options before committing to surgery or implants. For example, switching up your sleep position may have a big impact on sleep apnea.
The Best Sleep Positions for Sleep Apnea
Changing up your sleep position along with some other basic changes to your daily routine can greatly affect the severity of your sleep apnea. Changing your sleep position can also help with snoring and other sleep symptoms. Some positions help increase oxygenation and keep airways open, while others can do the opposite.
Side sleeping with your back straightened out is the best position when it comes to sleep apnea. This is according to the Sleep Better Council.
Research shows that sleeping on your sides reduces issues with sleep apnea, but sleeping on your left side specifically can help the most. Laying on your left side with your spine lengthened creates optimal blood flow and minimized the chances of airway obstructions. Reducing these obstructions can reduce the number of apneas that you experience each night.
There are more benefits associated with side sleeping. Studies show that it also reduces insomnia, and it may help relieve gastroesophageal reflux. And it helps keep your spine in proper alignment, decreasing the risk of back problems.
This position needs to be paired with the proper pillow. A thicker pillow to support your neck and head is ideal. You may find a body pillow works best for you as they are larger and able to be fitted around your position quite well.
Sleeping on your left side is particularly great for increasing air and blood flow. But, if you prefer to lay on your right side that is okay, too. This is still a good position for increasing airflow and blood flow to your lungs and body.
Stomach sleeping is a good second option for people who live with sleep apnea as it uses gravity to keep airways open.
Laying with your face down pulls the tissues in your mouth and throat forward. This reduces the chance that they will bear down and cause airway obstructions.
Take extra caution to make sure pillows and blankets are not causing any blockage to your nose and mouth. This position works best with a very thin pillow or one that is designed specifically for stomach sleeping. It may help alleviate strain on the neck when you are laying on your stomach.
Sleeping flat on your back may be good for spinal alignment. And it may be comfortable for those who sleep hot. But it is the worst position to sleep in if you have sleep apnea.
Opposite to stomach sleeping, back sleeping allows gravity to pull down the tissues in your mouth and throat which can cause issues while you sleep. As the weight of your mouth and throat bears down it may cause airway blockages. It can also make snoring much worse than when side sleeping or stomach sleeping.
If this is your go-to sleep position, you can try a few tricks to get used to sleeping in a different one. Invest in a new pillow that makes side sleeping comfortable for you. You can even try taping something like a tennis ball to your back to keep you from rolling onto it after you fall asleep. Or try elevating your head a little, so you are not laying completely flat.
Find the Right Position
If changing your sleep position does cause a positive change for you, you may need to get a little bit creative to achieve the best results. People usually fall asleep in the best position, but once they are comfortable and unaware they often roll over into whatever position they feel most comfortable in.
You can try taping a ping pong ball or a tennis ball to your back so that it is uncomfortable to roll onto. Or you can position pillows in a way to keep you from rolling over. If you find it difficult to avoid sleeping on your back then try to find a pillow that elevates your neck and head enough to keep your airways open. Some people find that investing in an adjustable bed or recliner makes this more achievable. Wedge-shaped pillows are a more affordable way to elevate yourself to help your sleep apnea. Find pillows made of foam rather than other soft materials.
Your sleep position can have a big impact on the quality of your sleep. A simple switch can be the difference you need to breathe better at night and get more quality sleep. Adjusting your sleep position may require some trial and error. It can take weeks before you feel comfortable in a new position. Keep trying to find what works for you.
To also help you sleep better, try taking CBD. It has been shown to be great for helping people unwind and fall asleep. It may be able to help you feel more relaxed and tired so you can drift off easier and stay asleep throughout the night.